‘Master Eustace’ by Henry James

James, Henry 1871

Master Eustace by Henry James, 1871

The magic trick:

The psychological analysis made by James (via the governess)

If you’re familiar with A Turn Of The Screw, then you’re at least halfway familiar with this storynote the narrator using a governess post as a way of filling an emotional void in her life. “Master Eustace” does not swing in a ghostly direction, however, though it does get violent.

What’s most remarkable, as always, with James is the psychological depth. Ultimately, you could write the story off as an overblown Victorian relic – or to be more blunt: a bunch of rich people actin’ the fool.

But when you have a narrator – the governess, mind you! – who can drop dimes like, “It was to be hoped that no adventurous ghost of these shuffled passions would climb upward to the light;” and “His reveries swarmed with tinted pictures and transcendent delights; his handsome young face, his idle insolent smile, wore the cold reflection of their brightness,” then you probably ought to read on knowing that you’re going to learn something about how humans operate. This governess has a keen eye for the human condition! And that’s quite a trick on James’s part.

The selection:

As I have never had a son myself I can speak of maternity but by hearsay; but I feel as if I knew some of its secrets, as if I had gained from Mrs Garnyer a revelation of maternal passion. The perfect humility of her devotion, indeed, seemed to me to point to some motive deeper than common motherhood. It looked like a kind of penance, a kind of pledge. Had she done him some early wrong? Did she meditate some wrong to come? Did she wish to purchase pardon for the past or impunity for the future? One might have supposed from the lad’s calm relish of her incense – as if it were the fumes of some perfumed chibouque palpitating lazily through his own lips – that he had a gratified sense of something to forgive.


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